For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:9-11
Although I've attended church regularly my whole life, I didn't start reading the Bible in earnest until I was in college, and that was because it was an assignment for my freshman-year Western Civ class. I don't think I'm that unusual for someone who grew up in a liturgical denomination: most of my exposure to the Bible was hearing it read in church. I'm not sure I even owned a Bible until college, and I certainly didn't spend any time on my own reading one.
Many Christians would be horrified by this admission. For them the Bible is the absolute bedrock foundation of their faith, and being able to cite it "chapter and verse" is a sign of the seriousness with which they take it. And while I do take much more pleasure and comfort in Scipture today than I did when I was younger, and while I do indeed consider it the "Word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation," I'm not ashamed of the form my early exposure to it took. It may not have been stringent, but it was consistent, organic, and unpressured; furthermore, it had the great virtue of being communal. And, perhaps surprisingly, it was deeply formational. Then again, maybe that shouldn't be a surprise.
The Bible was written to be listened to (not necessarily read) by communities of faith. This goes against our strong cultural preference for individual reading, but it can be a helpful thing to remember when approaching Holy Scripture. The Bible has a history, and each book in it had a context (time, place, culture, political setting, etc) in which it was written, as well as an intended audience.
That in no way denies the rich, profound ways that the Bible can speak to us as individuals; I have had many blessed and holy experiences of being pierced to the core by a line from a Psalm or having a passage from the Gospels open up something in me like a shaft of sunlight pouring into an abandoned room. Those experiences are deeply personal, and can change lives, but they are not the only purpose of the Bible--and the building up of individual faith lives through either intellectual or devotional reading practices is not the only legitimate approach to stuying the Bible, either.
Which brings me to this year's Making Disciples Conference, entitled http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/pamela-dolan/article_db22f4d0-bc84-11e0-a13b-0019bb30f31a.html" target="_blank">Love Heals: Rediscovering God's Promises. I already wrote about one of the speakers, http://www.thistlefarms.org/index.php/about-magdalene" target= "_blank">Becca Stevens, and her incredible ministry with victims of violence, addiction, and prostitution. The other speaker, http://www.webstergroveschristian.org/html/ourStaff.html" target= "_blank">Rev. Jeff Moore, will be introducing us to Contextual Bible Study, a way of reading the Bible in community that is meant to answer, or at least tackle, the great "so what?" questions. What difference does it make that we read the Bible? Is it only about personal spiritual formation, or can it lead to true transformation, in individuals, communities, and in the world at large?
Gerald West, one of the leading scholars in this field and a teacher and colleague of Jeff Moore's, has written that "Contextual Bible Study is not merely about interpreting the Bible; it is about allowing the Bible to equip us to change our world so that the kingdom of God may come on earth, as it is in heaven!" A tall order, but that's what we'll be talking about together at the conference on August 27.
I believe that being a Christian without asking the "so what?" questions risks missing the point entirely. It's not that religion can be boiled down to social justice or mere morality (heaven forbid), but if we're just going to church or reading the Bible to make ourselves feel better, why bother? Cocktail hour at the country club is way more fun than most church services, and many social service agencies accomplish more "good works" than we do. So what is the point? Ironically, the answers we seek are most likely found in Scripture itself--I just don't know that we can find them by looking there on our own, without the benefit of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, as well as both our own local community and the larger community of the Church.
I want need to be clear that I am not suggesting an "either/or" false dichotomy--there is no need to plant a flag and defend either individual, devotional reading or communal, transformative reading--we need both, because both serve different purposes and each one informs and enriches the other.
To paraphrase Isaiah, will the Word return to God empty? Or will it accomplish that for which it was made? Will it succeed in the mission for which it was sent? The Word is meant to be generative, like rain that falls from Heaven, and nourishing, like bread that satisfies our deepest hunger, and creative, like seed that yields an abundant and beautiful harvest. And it is not the private reserve of a privileged few, but is bread and water and seed for the whole world.
To learn more about http://ujamaa.ukzn.ac.za/Practical.aspx" target= "_blank">Contextual Bible Study and the http://media.diocesemo.org.s3.amazonaws.com/registrations/ESMFlyer.pdf" target="_blank">Making Disciples Conference on August 27, please follow the links in this story or read this http://www.diocesemo.org/news/2011/08/01/love-heals-rediscovering-gods-promises/" target="_blank">brief article in the Diocese of Missouri's website.